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Lillyman: From ACL at 17, to making Origin history

Before he was a member of Queensland's State of Origin dynasty, Jacob Lillyman was a teenager fearing his NRL career could be over before it had the chance to take off.

While he'd made a 'few rep teams here and there' at a junior level, it was at the age of 16 NRL teams started to take notice of the prop.

As a Cowboys supporter growing up, a 16-year-old Lillyman inked his first contract and moved five and a half hours from his hometown of Richmond to Townsville.

Lillyman had secured a scholarship to play for North Queensland. He was on cloud nine. A few months later he tore his ACL.


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"I ended up signing a scholarship and ended up finishing my schooling in Townsville," Lillyman told the Our Town Our Team podcast.

"In my first year there, I did my knee. (I) did my ACL. I had a full knee reconstruction at 17.

"That was very daunting. I thought it could've been all over there and then.

"There wasn't too many kids that age going through that. In the back of your mind you think, 'what if you never recover?'. That made me a lot stronger."

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Fortunately, it wasn't the end. It was just the beginning.

"The next year, in my last year of school I ended up playing reserve grade. That's where it all began," he said.



After graduating from famed rugby league school, Kirwan State High School, Lillyman played Australian Schoolboys in 2002.

A year later he was making his NRL debut.

As fate would have it, it was against the Newcastle Knights.

Lining up alongside the likes of John Buttigieg, Paul Rauhihi, Micheal Luck and Glenn Morrison, Lillyman

"I can remember there was a couple of injuries in first grade and I remember Graham Murray saying, I think it was John Buttigieg who was in doubt," he recalled.

"It's such a surreal experience knowing it's coming to reality.

"I got the call I was going to play and it was against the Knights. A superstar team and it was a rough night at the office for us as team.

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"It was the realisation of a dream and something I'll never forget. I remember the first tackle against guys like Adam McDougall and Steve Simpson. You're on the field going 'I can't believe I'm actually tackling these guys."

While he made three appearances in his rookie year, he missed the entire 2004 season due to injury and the dreaded 'second year syndrome' before earning his place in 2005.

It was a grand final season for the Club and when "I learned to become a week-in, week-out first grader."

"I actually played the first two semis and got dropped for the last two.

"In the second semi I didn't do too much but probably could've done more."

While the Cowboys lost the grand final to the Wests Tigers, the following year was a breakout season for the forward.

It was 2006 when he lived out a childhood dream and pulled on the Maroon of Queensland for his first Origin appearance in game two of the series.

It was Neil Henry who made the call and delivered the good news and the prop was on cloud nine.

"I remember my mum was in Townsville at the time staying with me," he said.

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"I had to back my bag and get into camp.

"NSW had won convincingly on the back of three series wins and remember going into camp and first day (Paul) Fatty Vautin talked to us. It was a stirring speech and that lit the fuse.

"We had a big win and that was the start of the dynasty."

He'd become an Origin player but by 2008, by his own admission, his career had stalled.

"My career had flat lined a bit," he said.

"I'd hit a bit of a cross roads. It wasn't the best year for me. I was off-contract and the Warriors opportunity came up. I knew I needed a change."

In need of a change, luck played a part in his move to the Warriors.

No, not the kind of luck you're thinking of... Michael Luck.

His former Cowboys teammate who was at the Warriors.

"It ended up being a conversation with Michael Luck," Lillyman said.

"Earlier Kevin Champion had talked to me. That was a couple of years earlier... someone asked Michael Luck and he talked to Ivan Cleary and he seemed keen. That's how it all started.

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"It was a different move. A kid from the bush going to New Zealand."

It was at the Warriors Lillyman played some of his best football.

And the Warriors had a roster to rival any. With a young Shaun Johnson running riot and the likes of Manu Vatuvei terrorising the corner posts, Lillyman admits he looks back on some of the latter seasons with disappointment.

"The last couple of years were really tough. We underachieved massively," he said.

"We had a really good roster and didn't make the finals. I still had a lot of fun and a lot of good memories."

After nine seasons in Auckland, Lillyman signed on with the Knights for a swansong season.
Lillyman played Origin in five years when Queensland won the series, plus a game in the 2017 series.

The veteran announced in August that this year would be his last.

While injury has limited his time on the field, making the journey to the hunter is a decision he's glad he made.

"Pulling on the famous Knights jersey is a big honour in itself," he said.

"A proud club and a club I believe is on the rise. I'll look back on this year with fond memories."